The James Compass
The James Compass is perhaps one of the most important artifacts that have ever been entrusted to the Ohio County Historical Society & Museum. The Compass and its original Staff are part of a display that also features the original Platt of Rising Sun, Indiana dated 1814.
The James Compass has had an interesting journey through time. It remained in the James family for 93 years and was presented to the City of Rising Sun by Mrs. Margaret Espey, the granddaughter of the town’s founder, John James, on December 16, 1907. The Compass and its related companions were placed on public display with the following label:
This is the compass, with its staff, used in laying out the original plat of the town of Rising Sun, May 30, 1814, under direction of John James, owner of the land, which was part of over 1000 acres he owned here.
His sons did the work; Pinkney was the surveyor, Henry and Abram the chain-carriers, and Basil made the plat of the town from the field notes of the survey.
Presented to the City of Rising Sun, December 16, 1907, by Mrs. Margaret S. Espey, daughter of Dr. Basil James, and granddaughter of John James; and ordered by the Common Council to be placed in the Mahlon Brown Library for the preservation as a valued relic.
The compass remained in the City’s hands for a number of decades. At some point in time, the Compass, Staff and Platt were handed over to the old Library in Rising Sun where the items were kept under lock and key in the lower level. The Compass and its companion pieces were eventually entrusted to the Ohio County Historical Society & Museum in 2000. The Platt was conserved and placed in a
protective plastic container and then sealed under protective UV glass. The conservation of the Platt was carried out a critical point in the life of the document. The paper was suffering from exposure to harsh light, moisture and improper handling through the years. Had the Historical Society not acted to preserve this document, it would have faded and been lost to future generations.
The James Compass is not only a priceless treasure to the citizens of Rising Sun, is also an extremely rare and valuable artifact. The Compass was manufactured by the renowned partnership of Rittenhouse & Potts. Our Compass would have been crafted in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, between the years of 1796 and 1798. Our Compass is a Vernier Compass which is a compass with a variation arc and a vernier mechanism. With it, a surveyor could compensate for magnetic variations and run lines in elevation to the true meridian, or retrace old lines assuming that he knew the extent of magnetic variation at the time the line was originally run. The form originated in the United States. David Rittenhouse made one of the earliest instruments of this sort, probably in the early 1780s. Benjamin Rittenhouse made numerous vernier compasses in the period 1785-1800.
In 1798, Surveyor General of the United States, Rufus Putnam told a prospective surveyor to obtain “a compass having a movable band Mr. Rittenhouse, near Philadelphia, makes the best I have seen).” In 1804, deputy surveyors were informed that fieldwork was to be done with a “Rittenhouse compass with a Nonius and a common2 pole and a chain of 50 links.” (A vernier was also known as a nonius.) W. & L.E. Gurley introduced the term vernier compass in the early 1800s. As you can surmise, our compass was the state of the art in technology of the time.
This was an instrument that only a person of wealth could have obtained and owned. The James family was known for wealth and prestige in Maryland. The James family holdings were large, as was the plantation where Mr. James was born and raised. It was a productive farm and famous in the region of Frederick County, Maryland. It is also very intriguing that not far from the area where John James was born and raised was a town called Rising Sun, Maryland, but that is another story.
Steamboat a Comin’
Enjoy six large scale steamboat models, photos and artifacts in celebration of the bicentennial of the first steamboat to successfully navigate America’s western inland rivers. The New Orleans was the first of many steamboats to ply the Ohio River and pass or stop at Rising Sun.